A quick internet search will reveal that Christmas movies are surprisingly controversial. Love them or not, holiday films can reflect some of the greatest societal tensions. We spoke to English Department Assistant Professor Andrew Scahill, PhD, who focuses on film studies. While he is an expert in the horror genre, it occurred to him that Christmas movies might also have some hidden messages about our humanity (or lack of it).
Scahill, who is teaching a class on Christmas movies this semester, was recently interviewed by the The New York Times about horror movies set during the winter holidays. His syllabus includes movies in the unique Christmas/Horror genre, such as Black Christmas (1974) and Anna and the Apocalypse (2017). It seems the Christmas movie can be combined with nearly any genre, which explains the Holiday Rom-Com (popular on the Hallmark Channel) and the Christmas Action movie (such as Die Hard).
Intangible Spirit vs. Material Possessions
The Christmas movie relies on duality. Older Christmas movies—including It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and White Christmas (1954)—explore the spirit of the holidays in contrast with the harsh realities of life. “It’s about reunifying the family and rejecting consumerism,” Scahill said. “That is really the bread and butter of a lot of these films.”
The Christmas movie often pits individualism against family values, which explains why the workaholic is a common main character. “Being a businessman is, of course, misery in the world of Christmas movies,” Scahill said. Nicholas Cage in The Family Man (2000) and James Caan in Elf (2003) are two good examples of businessmen who no longer believe in the spirit of Christmas—because they are obsessed with work.
Their drive to make money goes against the collective good of society, which requires prioritizing others. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss and its film adaptation from 2000, with Jim Carrey playing the grotesque Grinch, is almost a socialist parable. “Whoville represents this ideal socialist society,” Scahill said. When the Grinch steals the entire town’s Christmas presents, however, he does not succeed in killing Whoville’s spirit. “He does take away all of their material objects, but he learns that they still have joy—and that their joy does not come from possessions. Dr. Seuss was an incredibly progressive thinker.”
Misfits and Social Critique
The Grinch, however, is also a misfit, and misfits in Christmas movies can shine a light on societal problems. “The Grinch is either a racially excluded figure or a different body that is not part of the community structure,” Scahill said. “It’s pretty clear that he cannot be part of or feels excluded from the utopian Whoville.”
Other Christmas movies, such as Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), critique different aspects of society. “Burton is always interested in outcasts,” Scahill said. “He is actually critiquing Batman as this sort of one-percenter figure of privilege.” This Batman film features the Penguin (Danny Devito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) as complex villains. “The Penguin is a boy born into privilege, but because he has a non-normative body, he was rejected and disposed of into the sewers by his parents, so there’s a critique of eugenics and wealth,” Scahill explains.
Batman Returns uses Catwoman to reveal another societal problem, violence against women. “Pfeiffer’s character is sexually harassed and then murdered by her boss,” Scahill said. “The movie is a really sympathetic portrait of those who have been excluded.”
There is a whole subset of Christmas movies that Scahill refers to as anti-nostalgia Christmas films. Interestingly, in these movies the home—which is supposed to be a family sanctuary during the holidays—gets attacked. Gremlins (1984) and Home Alone (1990) both involve home invasion. “Gremlins is about disposability culture in America,” Scahill said. “We can think of it as an eco-critical film about disposability culture. We can think about the gremlins as neglected children run amok. The gremlins and Kevin in Home Alone are sort of like latchkey children left to their own devices.”
Children need to be cared for (or controlled). This paternalistic value an also extends to most women in Christmas movies. “Christmas films are, in many ways, so traditional. It is about returning people to traditional gender roles,” Scahill said.
Although most traditional holiday movies involve a male protagonist, the Christmas Rom-Com usually features a female protagonist—who needs to reform by accepting typically feminine traits and/or returning to her rightful place in the domestic sphere. “The characters usually have corporate positions, but they learn that what they really want is to return home and have a husband take care of them, usually in a bucolic or pastoral location,” Scahill said.
Charity and Gift-Giving
Christmas movies do have a saving grace: they promote empathy. In 1864, Harper’s magazine discussed the benefits of the holidays. “It is in giving gifts that the ‘good-will’ of the Christmas season reveals itself most clearly,” the magazine stated. The holidays are the time of year to focus on charity, especially for figures who have historically ignored the needs of others.
Charity and gifts become emblems of personal metamorphosis. “The gifts that these folks privilege are not physical objects,” Scahill said. “It is about sublimating your own selfish desires and thinking about the needs of others. It’s active empathy, I would argue, that leads to transformation.”